Over the next two weeks, many UK children will clamber out of bed, clamber into their uniform, and return to school for the summer term. School uniforms, being uniform, impose a uniform baseline cost on the parents and carers who buy them. This can mean that those who have the least are hit the hardest.
Every time schools have gone back a wave of diary entries has come into Covid Realities (a major research programme working directly with parents and carers to document life in the pandemic on a low-income) documenting the hard-hitting costs of uniform and the inaccessibility of inadequate grants meant to help meet some of the costs. And so, as a new school term begins, and with it the need to kit children out in ‘summer school wear’ whilst making sure existing uniform still fits, we wanted to share what parents and carers have been saying about managing the costs.The cost of a uniform
Despite extensive planning and budgeting, the costs of many uniforms are often completely unmanageable for those on limited budgets – just one uniform took over half of Alannah’s total monthly income:
It's been nothing but worry. Am anxious and financially broke, paying £310 pound for school uniform. When I only receive £556 a month (Alannah F, single parent of one, North West)
Parents having to choose between ‘heating and eating’ have been widely documented, but for many parents uniforms entered into the same equation. Not just heating or eating – but choosing between heating or eating because of uniforms:
With ever increasing cost regards food, electricity and gas I am struggling now with a brand-new uniform for my eldest child. Again, due to Universal Credit poverty strikes again… It’s just money, money, money in already stressful and difficult times. (Andrea N, lone parent with two children, Northern Ireland)
The priority given to uniforms within parents’ budgets is huge. Uniforms took precedence over birthday presents for Dotty G’s family, and drove her to seek a crisis loan:
It has been a long week. We have had birthdays this week. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford presents etc. We received emails through from our daughter’s school to tell us what procedures will be in place when schools start back next week… [W]e can’t afford to buy her school uniform. We had to apply for our 2nd crisis loan. (Dotty G, married mum of 3, Scotland).
Uniform costs; lockdown costs; spiralling costs
Many of the budgeting strategies families employ have become impossible during lockdown, whilst costs have risen. Tahlia once relied on charity shops and hand-me-downs from friends and family for uniforms. None of these were possible during lockdown, leading to a spiral of bills, debt and mounting hunger:
Before covid I would see my brother every few months, and he would give us hand-me-down clothes… A few mums would do the same. Because of covid… I’ve not received any hand me down clothes for my sons this whole year… In September had to buy 3 children all brand new uniform... I’m £2000 in debt, I ran out of money a week last Thursday… I ran out of food over last weekend… I’ve only eaten a diet based on bread and potatoes this last month as I wanted to ensure my kids had food. (Tahlia J, lone mum of 3, Midlands)
Michael needed an internet connection for home schooling. As happened for many families, this was one bill too many, with Michael facing tough decisions about whether to buy uniforms or food:
[D]uring lockdown as there was a need for internet connection for my daughter's school work. After making payments it is very hard to try and find enough money for food and school uniforms. (Michael R, lone parent, South East)
Again, the importance given to school uniform – competing with food as a cost – is striking, and a major concern.
Additional needs, additional costs
Families with additional needs could find sourcing school uniforms more difficult or expensive. For disabled and shielding parents, busy shops and queues could be completely inaccessible:
I’ve been shielding for months and now have to go to shops and buy my son uniform. Except I can’t stand for very long, without substantial pain. All the shops have queues, and it means I still can’t access them. (Conan M, partnered parent of two, North West)
Other factors also upped the costs and complexity associated with getting all their children properly clothed. Teddie G had to find uniforms for her larger family, and could only manage by using her children’s disability allowance:
That’s 5 pairs of shoes, 5 uniforms one to wash and one to wear each... then PE kits and footwear then school bags and stationary… Our only saving grace is as some of the children have SEN and receive DLA we can use some of that on these extras but should we really be forced to have to spend money that belongs to our disabled children on uniforms and shoes? Money that is supposed to be for their care needs! (Teddie G, married parent of five, North East)
Finally, starting school for the first time also triggered significant additional costs:
My daughter started secondary school and extra CoVid related expenses and her uniform and school expenses has nearly left me broken both financially and emotionally. Even with the £20 uplift there is no security that this will stay in place but even with that money I am struggling. The government did not consider children starting secondary school for the 1st time. (Charlotte P, single parent of two, Northern Ireland)
Inaccessible, inadequate support
Many Local Authorities offer uniform grants. Eligibility criteria and the amount they offer varies, but local processes clearly weren’t working for many Covid Realities participants. Ayda applied four weeks in advance; but heard nothing by the time her daughter returned to school:
I applied to our local authority for school clothing grant & free school meals 4 weeks ago & I still have not received any word on the outcome. So between a friend who lent us money, my daughter’s birthday money & a friend who used her store discount we managed to get a school uniform for my daughter. Feeling very let down by our local authority. (Ayda A, married mum of 3, Scotland).
Teddie found she was ineligible because her family received legacy benefits:
I saw advertised about uniform grants and thought ‘oh great we must be able to apply’ WRONG!!!! “No,” yet again because of the working tax credit........ (Teddie G, married parent of five, North East)
When they were able to receive them, parents consistently described uniform grants as inadequate. Many did not even cover the cost of a blazer:
My daughter is starting grammar school. The uniform is a few hundred pounds. The uniform grant is £73 or there abouts. That doesn’t even cover the price of a blazer. (Andrea N, single mother of two, Northern Ireland)
Families living in poverty plan, budget and implement cautious and careful financial strategies in their efforts to get by. Covid and lockdown has simultaneously made many of these strategies impossible, while also increasing household costs linked to additional spending on food and utility bills. This all too often leaves many families with unsustainable costs, with uniform an additional financial pressures, pushing many deeper into hardship.
Too often, school uniforms are an additional expense that it is hard for families on a low-income to meet. There are good reasons to have school uniforms, and they can help people feel pride in their school, and prevent bullying where children cannot afford access to the 'right' gear. But we need to make sure that uniforms are affordable to all, and do not create additional financial stress. Covid Realities participants reported being driven to choose between heating or eating, and uniforms. They chose between birthday presents and uniforms, and took on ‘crisis loans’ new debt to manage the cost of uniforms. Those with additional family needs were even harder hit by both accessibility and price. The support that is available with school uniform is inaccessible to some and inadequate for all, in some cases barely covering the cost of one blazer. National guidance on the cost of a school uniform is one step towards making uniforms less damaging to families with the least, but serious consideration must also be given to ensuring more meaningful support is provided according to families’ needs. Here, the obvious answer is targeted support to families with children; which can be effectively and affordably administered through an increase to Child Benefit of £10 per child per week.
Families are not uniform; it is unacceptable that they are being driven to debt, or to choose between blazers and eating, in today’s Britain. As we see the children return to school for the summer term, let’s also see concerted action to support families better.